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by josh kun

Desert music

MY GRANDPARENTS MOVED to the desert nearly three decades ago, before country clubs and spas turned all available expanses of dry Indian land into empty lots waiting to be developed. I remember the first time I stepped onto the desert sand just across from where their driveway ended. I was a little city kid squinting at a smogless sky, and what I noticed more than anything was the sound of the desert, the sound of nothing but wind and breath, lizards in bushes, the crunch of loose rock under my sandals.

"Was there ever such a stillness as that which rests upon the desert at night!" exclaimed one of the southwestern desert's first chroniclers, John C. Van Dyke, in 1901. "Was there ever such a hush as that which steals from star to star across the firmament!" Though "hush" and "stillness" are still prime traits of the desert soundscape, the silence of the desert has long been one of its greatest myths. The desert may be quiet, but it is rich with its own music. In William Carlos Williams's 1954 poem "Desert Music" – a poem that years later would inspire composer Steve Reich to actually imagine such a music – he heard the desert as music, music that surrounded and engulfed him, "a music of survival, subdued, half heard."

Sound artists Richard Lerman and Ariel Guzik also have approached the desert as music, and both have attempted to record it. Lerman has used homemade microphones and digital video to wire the Sonoran Desert as an acoustic landscape, giving us the sound of saguaro cactus thorns, the seeds of paloverde trees, and wind on ocotillos and desert rocks. Guzik, based in Mexico City, has come up with a desert music machine, the Harmonic Spectral Resonator, that collects natural sounds generated by the movement of sun, wind, and earth and then converts those sounds into machinic harmonies. On Guzik's first recording, REA: Harmonic Spectral Resonator (Conaculta/Fonca), the Mexican desert is a landscape of droning hums and steely wind. It is the sound of the desert as if this were how the desert heard itself, the clogged vibrations and thumping pulses that reverberate between the desert's ears.

But these desert listenings do what desert writer Charles Bowden has so often warned against: they treat the desert as if no one lived there. When I hear the desert, I hear all of those natural, ambient whispers and rumblings too, but I also hear the audio desert of my grandparents – the mechanized spray of sprinklers, the hushed baritone voices of TV golf announcers that echo throughout their house. Most of all, though, I hear the desert music that's on Stardust Records' new Mills Brothers reissue, The Best of the War Years, a collection of the vocal quartet's eight 78-rpm "V-Disc" sides recorded as entertainment for troops stationed abroad during World War II.

These four black men from Ohio have long been my white, Jewish grandfather's favorite group. War Years' "Lazy River" and "Til Then" were two of his favorites, and even though he knew every word by heart, he would never actually sing along with them while he drove in his car on the way to a bridge game, just intone them in gentle, elegant scats as cool and lulling as his terry cloth jumpsuits, his slip-on leather loafers, and his kinky gray hair that he would comb back with fluid strokes of both hands – one following the other like waves.

My grandfather never raised his voice or swore, and I always imagined that it was the calm of the Mills Brothers that he liked, their noninvasive tones, their suave perfection, their class. Even with the hiss and crackle of War Years' V-Discs, their voices come through as classy and warm, and they sounded especially so in my grandfather's Lincoln. He would play them on old warped cassettes, or he'd tune in on the radio – KWXY, his favorite station, which plays what the programmers call "beautiful music" and what he recently called, after taking off his oxygen mask in the hospital bed where he's been all month, "olden but golden." KWXY plays the Mills Brothers next to the 4 Aces and Guy Mitchell and between ads for hair-loss remedies and country-club memberships.

There is something protective and secure about this music – something well beyond being simply comforting (Williams called desert music "a protecting music"). Even when I drive alone in the Lincoln after leaving my grandfather in the hospital, the soft strings and tickling pianos make the rolled-up windows seem bulletproof.

Van Dyke once characterized the desert as a place where "everything within in its borders seems fighting to maintain itself against destroying forces." The desert music of my grandparents now reflects that fight: the incessant, anxious hum of my grandmother as she talks to herself, the exhaling hiss of my grandfather's dialysis machine. The Mills Brothers are still there, and I can still hear my sandal crunch down on rocks, but the mix has gotten complicated – easy listening that's become difficult – a desert music fighting against a silence that I still hope will never come.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.